By Ferida Wolff (Cherry Hill, NJ)
Grandma Rose lived with us when I was a kid.
She wasn’t a chatty sort of person, but she did tell my sister and me stories. Often they were cautionary tales.
I particularly remember the “Don’t run with…” story. It could be don’t run with a pencil, or don’t run with a fork in your hand, but usually a pair of scissors prompted it.
“Don’t run with scissors,” Grandma Rose would say, and a story would begin.
“When I was your age in the old country, we didn’t have anything. We had only the clothes on our backs and a little bit of food, if we were lucky.”
Grandma Rose’s stories always began that way (and I always had a lot of trouble imagining her as my age).
“One day,” she’d continue, “a neighbor’s boy found a pair of scissors in the road. Now this boy would never listen to what was good for him. If his mother said, ‘Chew slowly or you’ll choke,’ he gobbled and ended up with hiccups. But that’s another story.
“Well, he was so excited to show the scissors to his parents that he ran home. On the way, he tripped and poked out his eye. So, you listen and don’t run.”
I listened. (I didn’t want my eye poked out.) But I was more interested in how the magical scissors or pencil or fork should suddenly appear in a village that had nothing.
So I would ask Grandma Rose questions about the old country and the people she knew, the family members I would never meet, the pre-electrical and pre-plumbing days in a country I would probably never see.
Grandma Rose would sip from her glass of tea, the spoon anchored by her index finger, and tell me about growing up on the outskirts of Vienna and about her life as a fifteen-year-old immigrant in New York City, where she worked as a seamstress.
Her co-workers called her Fancy Rosie because she made beautiful blouses from the scraps of material on the factory floor.
It was hard for me to picture her as Fancy Rosie. All I ever saw her wear was an apron over a housedress, her head wrapped in a babushka.
Years later, when I had my own children, I started asking my mother questions that would help me understand the genetic traits inherited in our family.
She told me stories where Grandma Rose had left off…of growing up in the Great Depression and of the World Wars.
Through my mother’s eyes I saw a different picture of my grandmother.
And as my children grew, they asked me the same kinds of questions that I had asked Grandma Rose.
I told them about growing up in a neighborhood equally divided between Jewish and Italian families.
I hummed the rhythms that I heard at my Sephardic grandparents’ table on Pesach and on long Shabbat afternoons.
Showing my children ancient and faded photographs, I introduced them to relatives who had passed away before I was born and to those who had played with them when they were too young to remember.
Now I am a grandmother.
My daughter is already telling her son stories–one generation passing along the family lore to the next.
And I find comfort in having a past, fitting in somewhere, being part of the unbroken thread from Fancy Rosie’s needle.
Ferida Wolff’s essays appear in newspapers, magazines, and online at www.grandparents.com and www.seniorwomen.com. A frequent contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, she has written 17 books for children, including her latest picture book, The Story Blanket (Peachtree Publishers 2008). You can visit her website: www.feridawolff.com.